This is a story about one of those times in life when nothing particularly out of the ordinary happened, yet, despite not having any great feat to tell tales about, is perhaps one of the highlights of my life. These times are nearly impossible to plan, perhaps by definition as they sneak into your life without the anticipation that gives you expectations to be lived up to. These moments are nearly impossible to duplicate. The trick, I suppose, is being open to living in these moments and not spoiling them by the distraction of planning something supposedly bigger.
This is a story about hard work, a reunion, a new love, a difficult event, good friends and a birthday.
Mary and I both had hard but productive weeks, working long hours and being apart from each other, as we often were in those days. I was hurrying to finish installing stained glass windows into the chapel of a new hospital. The town that I was working in just so happened to be on the way to an event that Mary and I were planning to do together as a team. If I worked very hard, and finished up by Friday, Mary could pick me up on her way to this event. This created quite some urgency as the building project had some oversights and difficulties that I had to solve, and fast. I hate bailing on a good plan, once implanted in my head.
Mary and I had teamed up to race the ‘Perfect Ten ROGAINE’ in the expansive National Forest surrounding the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. It had an extra layer of joy in that I was, for the first time, sharing something that had been a big part of my life for many, many years. Mary is a great athlete but this ten hour long race was much, much longer than her usual endeavors. She was happy to join me in my environment, and I was ecstatic to have her with me as my partner.
This particular weekend was also going to be my 50th birthday. I usually don’t get very wrapped in formalities such as birthdays but the idea of sharing it, while camping with my friends, and running through the forest with my spouse, was starting to fill me with anticipation like a kid on the day before Christmas.
My anticipation and patience was put to the test by an act of love. Mary wanted to personally bake me a birthday cake in order to show how much she cared. The trouble was, her week had been so hectic that she was going to have to make it after work on Friday, then make the long drive to the town I was working in. Bake a cake first? Oh no, I could see chasm of time before our meeting widening like in a bad dream, until the other rim of that divide bumped into the weekend events that we were so looking forward to. My capacity for patiently, lovingly, waiting was being put to the test. I didn’t want no stinkin’ tests, I want her with me. It took me a good bit of logic in order to persuade her to let go of her idea of showing love, and let me take care of the cake while she made the drive. Being so expertly adept at romance, I went to Walmart. The young girl working the Walmart bakery late on a Friday evening was afraid that she might get in trouble for writing my desired birthday greeting in icing. My request wasn’t even very bad. It was a small town and she was just so shy and innocent. She made sure to tape the invoice over the clear plastic window on top and gave me explicit instructions as to how I should answer the question why the invoice was not taped to the side as is standard operating procedure. It had something to do with the color of the icing and ultraviolet light. The checkout clerk did not notice the lapse in protocol. My rehearsed instructions were not needed. Getting the cake was a good distraction as I was struggling to be patient. Perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder but my wife in my arms makes my heart feel just fine.
Mary arrives in town late in the evening and we should be pressing on, but we are hungry and want to celebrate our reunion. We end up falling into an out of the way place called Prison Brews. The atmosphere is perfect and we lose all care about the time, something that is special because it is such a rare occurrence. When we finally finish what turned into a wonderful date, with previous cares forgotten about, we waddle our wood-fired-Greek-pizza-stuffed selves out into the dark to press on with the rest of our travel.
We pull into the campground very late at night. I kick some old, dirty stained glass windows out out of the van and lean them against a tree so that we can sleep in the back.
We arrived at the headquarters of the main event just before dawn the next morning. Many of our friends are already there. The race director, who is a good friend and former race partner of mine, gives us the maps required to complete the course. This was a ten hour long ROGAINE. A ROGAINE is basically a very long orienteering course in which the check points can be visited in any order. An orienteering race is basically a running race where the course is completely unmarked and in the forest. All you can use is the provided topographic map, with the checkpoints that you must find marked on it with little red circles. A course such as this might cover nearly one hundred square miles.
I get busy and use the allotted course planning time to plot, measure and calculate what I think might be the best possible route to maximize our chances of winning. Mary finishes getting our food and supplies packed. The time comes and the race officially begins, with all of the teams running off in various directions. It was a beautiful early morning and I was happy to have my new partner to share this with. I was also a little apprehensive as I did not want to let her down. She was apprehensive that she did not want to let me down.
Things are going great, couldn’t be better, I am so happy explaining the craft that I enjoy that we walk right past one of the checkpoints. We only lost five or ten minutes so not too bad.
After a few hours of trekking through the woods and running down the roads, I am impressed that my honey is happily keeping pace. We are going the kind of speed that has the possibility of winning an event such as this. Then, after many hours, and while doing a long run down a road, Mary appears to crack. I start to console myself that we are just going to have a good time and we weren’t really expecting to win in the first place, when two of our good friends, Jeff Ryan and Josh Borgmeyer pass us. Mary’s competitive juices spring her to life. We are going fast again as Mary jokingly pushes them out of the way as she runs by. This is how we have fun. I had noticed that Mary, though getting tired on the road runs, was trekking through the woods with ease. I guess that’s a skill you get when you grow up in rural West Virginia. Because of this, I decide to change my strategy to avoid road running and switch to walking through the woods, taking the shortest straight line from one checkpoint to the next. Jeff and Josh continue the often more common method of taking longer routes in order to take advantage of road running. Mary and I, Jeff and Josh, keep coming together at each control, from different directions. Over and over it happens for many hours which is starting to become rather comical. At one point, I charge up to the top of a ridge, a little ahead of the other three and somehow walk right past the orange and white control flag without seeing it. I run down the ridge, away from the other three, as fast as I can. ‘It’s should be here’ I think as I run. They stand there silently at the flag for a moment, looking in the direction I had just disappeared to. Finally, one of them suggests “perhaps he had to use the restroom”. Eventually, I returned to find Mary sitting there by herself. “Where did you go?” she asks.
I lose my map little over six hours in while we walk along, getting food out of our packs. We take Mary’s map out of her pack but I did not put any of my time estimates on that one, making my prediction of how we are doing less reliable.
As we trek the final leg towards the finish, with just enough time before the ten hour cut off, we are once again joined by our rival team and friends, Jeff and Josh. One last flat area at the end of a finger of a lake, then up a hill, and we are done. Don’t count your chickens before the eggs hatch. In the flat area, we enter some of the nastiest thorns and briars I have ever seen. They are over our heads and the going is painfully slow. While I ‘charge’ ahead to try to find the best way through, Mary’s long hair gets terribly tangled in the thorns, stopping her cold. I’m unaware of the cause of the commotion I hear going on behind me until I hear one of the guys tell Mary “don’t worry, we’ll come back with some scissors”. After the group project of extricating her from the entanglement, (no scissors were used) we wade out into the lake to free ourselves from this trap and make it back in time.
That entire weekend of reunion, challenging event, of friends, campfires and a Walmart cake was possibly the best way that I can think of to spend a 50th birthday.
Recognize that seemingly small things are the spice of life. It all depends on how you share them and enjoy them.